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A No-Name Developer's Guide to Succeeding on Kickstarter

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In May 2012, I decided that it would be in the best interest of my team (and bank account) to launch a Kickstarter campaign. Despite having already released five smaller games, my team Divergent Games was essentially an unknown entity.  Realizing this, I knew that we'd not only have to make our existence known, but to somehow coerce complete strangers to throw money at our little JRPG - a formidable task indeed.

Fast forward thirty days later and our campaign proved a success. Hiro Fodder: A Blue Hope ended up raising a $548 more than its asking goal of $12,500.

Running a Kickstarter campaign was akin to working a full-time job. It's stressful, it requires long hours and, if not planned out, it can easily result in failure. And while we managed to hit our goal, there are so many things that I learned during and after the campaign that, had I known them beforehand, I could have potentially saved myself a lot of headaches. The purpose of this article is to share what I learned with other no-name or first time developers, so that they too can run a successful Kickstarter campaign.


The Plight of the Unknown Developer

Before I go on a rant about how hard it is to succeed on Kickstarter, let me say this: Kickstarter is awesome. Kickstarter has helped gaming icons like Brian Fargo and Tim Schafer raise hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars for their upcoming projects. Without it, I would have never met some truly fantastic folks. More importantly, it's one of the main reasons why I'm able to develop the game of my dreams.

But if you're new to the game development world, running a successful Kickstarter campaign can be a harrowing experience. There's a reason why the Tim Schafers of the world can raise seven figures more easily than the average no-name can raise five: they're known and trusted. Remember - no one is going to question whether or not Tim Schafer is going to put money raised through crowdsourcing to good use, but they'll certainly question you.

Raising money is easy if you're the most awesome person in gaming.

Raising money is easy if you're the most amazing person in gaming.

Setting a Realistic Goal

Before launching your campaign, it is imperative that you establish a realistic goal. In order to do so you should ask yourself a few questions first:

  • Have you written a game design document? The worst thing any game developer can do is assume that a game will only require X amount of assets, when in fact it needs Y. Game design documents, at least good ones,  counter this issue by breaking games down into their constituent parts. From there, you should be able to assess how many of each asset type will be needed. By determining this information beforehand, you'll be able to more readily deduce how much money and time you'll need to development your masterpiece.
  • What do you need the money for? If the funds are going to be used to hire additional team members, try to gauge the cost of their services. For instance,  if a composer charges $200 per composition, and you need to commission him for 18 tracks, then your music budget should be around $4,500. Why $4,500 instead of $3,600? Because Kickstarter collects a 5% fee, and Amazon anywhere between 3-5%. In addition, you'll need to reserve part of your budget for creating backer rewards, and (in the case of physical rewards) shipping charges.
  • Is Kickstarter your only means of raising money? Most indie game developers either self-fund part of their project or seek investments from multiple sources. If you're planning on using Kickstarter exclusively, be warned: the higher your goal, the less chance you'll have to succeed, especially as an unknown. On the flip side, if you do manage to fund the majority of your project through Kickstarter, you won't have to worry about taking out loans, maxing out credit cards or giving up insane amounts of equity.
  • What are similar games asking for? Identify your genre and scope and begin searching for like-minded campaigns. Examine both successful campaigns and ones still underway. Take a look at their reward structure, and gather data about their most popular reward tiers - usually the "Pre-order" or "Pre-order plus original soundtrack" tier. Based on this information, structure your own rewards accordingly. While it may be tempting to ask for $50 in exchange for a copy of your game, you'll find that most games from no-name developers usually ask  for $5, $10 or $15. Stay competitive.

If the Game Gets Funded, How Long Will It Take to Develop?

I'd estimate that approximately 100% of Kickstarter campaigns do not meet their expected release date. Backers have become accustomed to these delays, and as long as updates are provided on some sort of consistent basis, they typically don't mind waiting a few extra months, or even over a year.

With this in mind, determine your game's earliest possible release date, add maybe 20-25% to it, add another six weeks (since it will take about that long for the money to hit your account) and post that as your estimated release date. For instance, if under ideal circumstances your game will take a year to develop and your Kickstarter launched today, your estimated release date should be somewhere around eighteen months from now.

On the flip side, if your estimate is too conservative, you may turn potential backers off. I can't imagine anyone wanting to back a game that is going to take five years to develop. Try to find the middle ground between safe and aggressive, knowing full well that most Kickstarter backers are forgiving types.


The Project Page

Your game's project page is likely the only page potential backers will view before making the decision to contribute to your campaign. It should be informative, well-structured and highly visual.

  • The project description: When writing a short blurb that sums up your game, be sure to include the game's genre and any feature that differentiates your game from the masses. For instance, it's not enough to say, "Hiro Fodder is a game where the player assumes the role of the traditional villain." Instead, try something like "Hiro Fodder: A Blue Hope is an uproarious yet heartfelt and story-driven JRPG that follows the journey of one rambunctious slime on his quest to redefine the definition of easy XP."
  • Graphics: One quality graphic is worth more than a dozen mediocre ones. If your funds are limited - and they probably are, otherwise why would you need Kickstarter? - commission an artist for one or two pieces of high quality concept art specifically for your campaign. Better yet, have the artist create a mock-up of your game. That way, potential backers can at least see your vision of the final product. Along the same lines, create graphical sub-headers that capture the feel of your game. These go over better than simple text headers. Echoes of Eternea game designer Ryan Harmon did an excellent job of selling his concept to the masses by littering his project page with impressive visuals and eye-catching sub-headers.
  • Budgeting section: At the very least, include a section that spells out, in detail, what the funds will be used for. Better yet, use a graphical display. Backers are more inclined to scan a visual aid than to read a wall of text, especially if they only have a passing interest in your project.
  • Platforms: Don't forget to mention what platforms the game will be released on. If one of your stretch goals is to release the game on additional platforms, mention that.
  • Demo: In order to show off your game, you're going to have to create some sort of demo. Like with graphics, it's more beneficial to create a very small portion of your game and create it well, than to slop the entire thing together and have it comes across as being made by a bunch of hobbyists. If you're on a super tight budget, base your demo around one facet of gameplay (like combat, exploration, or puzzles). Avoid programmer art, stock music, and boring aspects of the game, like menus, whenever possible.

The Video

It is imperative to upload a well-conceived video. It doesn't have to be of the highest production value as long as it accomplishes two purposes.

First, it needs to show off virtually everything your team has accomplished on the game thus far. A cinematic opening, gameplay, concept art - anything that presents your game in a favorable light. Without it, most visitors are simply going to hit the Back button on their browser and proceed to the next campaign. Showing off your game is so important, that when people ask me how they should structure their pitch video, I suggest that they front load the video with images and gameplay from their title, and don't start talking until at least a minute in. Forget about high production values, comedy sketches and elongated introductions - you have approximately 20 seconds to capture your visitor's attention. Use them wisely.

As handsome as I am, would you rather listen to me, or see the actual game?

As handsome as I am, would you rather listen to me, or see the actual game?

Second - and only after you've showed off a sufficient amount of gameplay footage - it should formally introduce you and your team. Try to intersperse screenshots or concept images while you're speaking, otherwise you'll run the risk of boring visitors to tears. And keep it brief - despite how important you think you are, visitors are interested in backing your game, not you. While having an engaging personality won't hurt your cause, bombarding users with anecdotes about your personal life certainly will. Check out one of my favorite Kickstarter projects, Boot Hill Heroes, for an example of a pitch video done right.

Dave and Ben from Boot Hill Heroes represented themselves in sprite form - brilliant!
Dave and Ben from Boot Hill Heroes represented themselves in sprite form - brilliant!

Build a Community

One of the most common mistakes newbie game developers make is assuming that they can simply adopt the same tactics as big name developers and expect swarms of traffic. Big name developers succeed because people already know who they are. Sadly, you do not have luxury. The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do to attract new visitors to your site.

  • Twitter and Facebook: By now most game developers know the importance of having a Facebook and Twitter page. Of the two, Twitter is probably the more useful for getting your name out fast. Use it to engage in conversations with other game developers, and to post updates about your game. Be sure to use hashtags as they can increase your reach exponentially.
  • Reddit:  Not surprisingly, Reddit is becoming as important as Twitter in helping no-name developers draw new backers. At the very least, post to the /r/kickstarter subreddit at launch. Be sure to mention the name of your game and a brief description. Titling your post "I just launched a Kickstarter campaign" will hardly differentiate you from the masses of new Kickstarter campaigns that launch each day. You can also post in a gaming subreddit, although I wouldn't recommend blatantly advertising your game. Instead, try to appeal to the subscribers by mentioning how your game shares similarities to the game they subscribed to.
  • Steam Greenlight: An increasingly popular trend is to launch Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight campaigns simultaneously. Whether or not you should do it depends solely on far along you are in the development process. If you're demo is a fully realized embodiment of your game, then by all means, toss it up on Steam Greenlit. However, if you're trying to raise funds for better art, music and to create new gameplay features, it might be best to hold off until your game is further along. Increasing your chances of success on Kickstarter is hardly worth throwing your chances of being Greenlit down the drain. If you do decide to place your game on Steam Greenlight, wait until the middle of your campaign. Doing so will provide you with an exposure boost - something you'll sorely need at around the halfway point in your campaign.
  • PR and Marketing Plans: During the first 48 hours or so, Kickstarter will feature your game high up on the "Recently Launched" section. After that, it's up to you to somehow prevent your momentum from slowing to a complete halt. It is during this middle period, often referred to as the trough, that media coverage becomes paramount to your success. In addition to providing regular updates and contacting members of the press, you should be using this time to offer special rewards or add-ons. For instance, you may consider giving away two copies of your game or including a free soundtrack for the price of a pre-order. For more on general marketing strategies, check out my Indie Game Marketing Checklist.

Forging Alliances With Other Campaigns

There is a misconception among some game developers that anyone launching a campaign similar to yours is the enemy. After all, aren't they stealing your potential backers?

This couldn't be further from the truth. If anything, the more like-minded the campaign, the more beneficial it is for you to get in contact with its creator. Remember, the average backer doesn't donate to just one or two projects. If they're passionate about a particular genre of gaming, they'll likely spread the wealth to every worthwhile team developing a game within their beloved genre. By engaging in conversation with other creators, you can quickly establish a measure of trust. This trust might lead to them dropping a timely plug in one of their updates, asking their backers to check out your game. In turn, you could do the same.

I can say without a doubt that forging alliances with other campaign creators is one of the best ways to increase your chances of success.

During our campaign, we forged a strong relationship with EoE Games
During our campaign, we forged a strong relationship with EoE Games.

Updates

While your campaign is running, be sure to provide frequent updates. Listed below are a few ways to get the most mileage out of them:

  • Do not encumber your backers with updates: One or two updates per week is more than enough. Any more and your backers may become frustrated. As much as I liked the idea behind SpaceVenture, 50 updates in a 30 day period was far too many, and probably had a negative effect on their campaign.
  • Save a few pieces of content for your updates: Updates need to be meaningful. Just checking in and letting backers know you're still alive isn't enough. Instead, reserve some artwork, music, concept art and gameplay footage specifically for your updates.
  • Link to press coverage: Doing so might impress your backers enough to start spreading the word about your game in their own social media circles. It may also encourage other media outlets to cover your campaign.

The Last 48 Hours

It's crunch time - the clock is ticking, and you have yet to meet your goal. Feelings of despair and desperation are becoming more and more frequent. So what do you do about it?

  • If you have enough backers, encourage each of them to raise the amount of their pledge by a nominal amount.
  • Get together with your team members and run a live stream. This will allow backers to identify with your plight and might encourage them to donate more, especially if they see you freaking out.
  • Gauge whether it's time to pull the plug. If the odds of your project succeeding look grim, consider pulling the plug early. Even if your project is successfully funded, if you're relying on a few massive pledges to get you over the hump, it might be best to cancel the project. Why? Because if one of those big pledges doesn't process, you'll be out a lot of money and will still be obligated to honor the rewards.
Desperation attempt, or genius marketing?

Desperation attempt, or genius marketing?

Conclusion

One of the first things I said after our Kickstarter for Hiro Fodder ended was, "Well, suddenly developing a game doesn't seem so bad."  In truth, I wasn't as prepared as I should have been, and because of that I had to resort to desperate tactics in order to succeed. It was a nerve wracking, frantic month where little development was done on the actual game. But it was also an exciting month and a terrific learning experience that I would never take back. And next time, if there is a next time, I'll be ready. Hopefully, with all the resources currently available on the net, including this article of course, you will be too.

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